“If Lee Miller had never existed, journalists would have to make her up,” wrote the Independent. The beautiful American blonde rose from traumatic childhood (she was raped) to become a model, a muse, a Vogue photographer, a war photojournalist and an alleged spy. Miller was the only woman combat photographer to be embedded with the troops during the European campaign in the Second World War and was famously photographed in Hitler’s bathtub.
She talked Vogue into assigning her hard-core war stories uncharacteristic for a fashion magazine. Miller and Life photographer David Scherman, a close friend and companion in war, were present at the liberation of Dachau and Buchenwald. The latter was liberated 12 hours before Miller arrived and her dispatches from the liberated concentration camp were one of the first reports on the Holocaust for the American public.
In June 1945, American Vogue ran Miller’s photographs of piles of emaciated corpses from the camps under the headline: “Believe It.” The title was taken from Miller’s telegram to her editor, which began with “I IMPLORE YOU TO BELIEVE THIS IS TRUE.” In another telegram, she noted, “NO QUESTION THAT GERMAN CIVILIANS KNEW WHAT WENT ON.”
The accompanying “Believe It” article opened with “The German people—audacious, servile, well-fed—have forgotten that they are Nazis and we are their enemy.” She went on to describe the relative comfort and security of German women and how well-fed the children are, pointing out that the proximity between German towns and the concentration camps, the stench, and the rail cars that only traveled one way to a dead end near the camps meant the locals might be all too well aware of the Final Solution.
The story celebrating the Allied victory in June 1945 issue was a slight tonal shift after a hundred pages of advertising girdles, stockings and perfumes. It was a late eddition as some pages were numbered from 102/a to 102/d. It included seventeen pages in total including 4 double pages with photos and texts by Miller.
First spread: the meeting of Russian soldiers and American soldiers.
Second spread: ‘Germans are like this.’ A Brecht-style montage juxtaposing joyful, well-fed German children with piles of bone ashes watched over by skeletal liberated men in striped pants, a tidy orderly village with equally well-aligned crematorium ovens
Third spread: ‘Believe it.’ The photo of a pile of corpses of Buchenwald prisoners and a small photo of a hanged SS man. Miller wrote: “I usually don’t photos of horrors. But don’t think that every town and every area isn’t rich with them. I hope Vogue will feel that it can publish these pictures.”
Fourth spread: ‘Nazi Harvest’. Eight photos on the aftermath and reprisals against the Germans, including a photo of a young Nazi woman who had committed suicide, a scene also photographed by Margaret Bourke-White.
Alexander Liberman, Vogue’s Russian Jewish émigré art director, ran her photos along with a slightly shortened version of Miller’s copy in American Vogue. British Vogue ran a longer version of the story but cut most of the pictures, running only one of her pictures in a decision that angered and frustrated her. Winters thought the photos too depressing for the post-VE day positive mood in Britain (the photos were run in a later issue).